Thursday, October 30, 2008

Paul Melko "Singularity Ring": book review

I really wanted to like Paul Melko's "Singularity Ring". I'm a sucker for everything that has Singularity in the title. But it failed to draw me in. By the way -- maybe it's just me, but by stating the protagonist was a starship-pilot-to-be, the cover blurb lead me to believe that this is a space adventure. I was mistaken: the book takes place almost entirely on Earth.

To quote synopsis of the book, "Various factions struggle for control of the Ring, a colossal space station built around Earth by engineers who turned most of humankind into a group mind called the Community, which promptly figured out how to access other realities and vanished from this one. The few remaining humans genetically engineer their children to form pods of individuals so closely bonded that they function as one person. After stumbling on secret research during a training exercise, the teenage pod called Apollo Papadopulos soon find themselves on the run from shadowy forces who want to seduce or kill them." That's a fair description of the plot. However, the devil is, as always, in the details.

The first few chapters: like watching a bored child

The beginning of the story, where the pod wonders around the countryside, undergoes training and occasionally gets into trouble, did not hold my interest. There's something about the idea of young, physically perfect, superhuman characters roaming around and feeling vaguely bored, that turns me off. To make it worse, some chapters are written in the present and others in the past tense, but that doesn't mean the past-tense chapters happened before the present-tense ones. The timeline of the first few chapters is unclear.

For a book about Singularity, the first few chapters are oddly low-tech. Even though there are offhand mentions of the Community (consisting of humans that disappeared in the recent Singularity), the Ring (a structure around the Earth where they lived just before they disappeared), the Exodus (disappearance of the said Community), and even something called the Rift (of which nothing more is said), those remarks are so scarce and non-specific they don't provide interesting clues as to what exactly this Ring and Community is / was and what happened to them. Basically, you don't immediately get a picture that there's something interesting going on; rather, reading about the teens' capers they filled me with ennui similar to that which comes from watching a bored child.

The bear storyline is disconnected from the rest of the plot

The pace picks up with the accident in the space station. (Yes, there is a chapter or two that take place in space station, and then it's back to Earth.) At that point I finally felt things were starting to move along, and the characters were taking charge of their own story. Alas, then they go back to Earth, and more aimless roaming ensues. Well, it's not entirely aimless. The pod has a goal of finding a family of genetically engineered bears they suspect of holding clues to certain secrets they've stumbled upon. Ultimately, though, the bear storyline turns out to be nothing more than a digression. Yes, the teens get a certain clue that explains some things, but that whole episode (and it makes a good third of the book) is so dissociated from the rest of the plot that it does not feel like a part of the same story.

Interesting concepts not integrated into the plot

Overall, there are some interesting concepts there, but they are only revealed at the end, instead of being integrated into the story. Reading this book you don't get that satisfaction a reader can get when separate clues add up to the big picture and a realization slowly dawns. Maybe this was the aim in this book, but it just didn't happen. The most interesting concepts of the book are not woven seamlessly into the plot. That's actually a common flaw in many science fiction books. It's hard to do it right. Well, this is Paul Melko's first novel, so maybe there's still hope.

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